Interview: Niels Lyhne Løkkegaard

Now I think about it, I’ve been fascinated by the phenomena explored through Løkkegaard’s SOUND X SOUND project since I was a small child. I used to go see Tottenham Hotspur play several times a season, and forever marvelled at how the congregation of thousands of chanting fans (all screaming “COME ON YOU SPURS” in drunken, somehow tuneful unison) all fused into a sound all of its own; a timbre that contained traces of the human voice yet ultimately transcended it, swirling around White Hart Lane stadium in a gale of slurred vowels.

Danish composer Niels Lyhne Løkkegaard has spent the last few years composing for ensembles comprised of single instruments. 18 recorders. 30 chromatic tuners. 10 hi-hats. 15 shakers. As the name suggests, SOUND X SOUND explores what happens when a single tone is multiplied by itself – when similar vibrations splay across space and collide with eachother, amplifying their common traits and negotiating their differences. The shakers form a crisp, high-frequency wash of white noise. The recorders become a rippling blanket of beeps and electronic chirps. The piano (played, at one point, wearing gloves that slide down the keys from high to low) becomes an ivory rain, backdropped by the gasp of strings quivering in the wooden hulls of the piano body. The effect is absolutely wonderful. Below, Løkkegaard and I discuss the conception of SOUND X SOUND, his plans for the final four pieces in the series, and how multiplying sound acts as a remark on musical narratives and our problematic reverie for musical tradition.

So what’s the central idea of SOUND X SOUND and how did the project begin?

The first release [Music For 8 Recorders] was an offspring of a piece I did earlier called Sikorsky, which was this major piece for 18 musicians: eight bass clarinets, four cymbals and four double basses, plus alto saxophone and trumpet. It was this spectral piece. I had fallen in love with how the sound could partly transcend – but also transform – into something else. So suddenly the bass would sound like a bass clarinet, while a cymbal played with a bow would sound like the overtones on a double bass. I just felt an urge to look at what would happen if you just multiply the sound of one instrument.

It’s a pretty simple concept, and it’s not that different from choir music. We’re so familiar with that. When you make a choir piece, the individual voice dissolves into this greater collage of sound. By listening to this timbre that evolved when instruments were multiplied, I found out that the sound suddenly became something else, and it became easier for me, as a listener, to go into this sound. You know that feeling as a listener, where a narrative is pulled down on you and there’s a clear agenda from the composer’s side – that you should feel this from the music? Suddenly, it dawned on me that I liked this multiplication sound because I was free from the individual instrument, the individual player and the individual reference within an instrument. I was free to create my own narrative in this music.

As a composer of these pieces, you surely have to write for, and contemplate, the individual to begin with. How do you reconcile this with the desire to transcend the sense of individuality within the music?

Above all, my interest is in sound as matter. That is my focal point. When I write the music, of course I write individual voices for each player. But I consider each player as a building block in this layering process. In the western way of looking at music, we divide the scale into half and whole step, and we work with a tempered universe. I really try to look into all the other stuff: what is below the half step? What is the un-tempered universe? What knowledge has not found its way into this western tradition of making music? When you first play an instrument, you start by learning a major scale; you don’t learn how to play a microtonal scale, for instance.

From the press material accompanying the SOUND X SOUND releases, I get the impression that this method of making music has certain analogies to democracy and power structures generally. Did these arise during the creation of the pieces or in retrospect?

It’s something that came up in retrospect. I started creating these pieces because I wanted to experience, as a listener, this sonic catharsis – this feeling of being cleansed. And then I started to think, “why is it that I can breathe easier in this music? Why is it that I feel I can go into this music without struggling with insistent narratives?” And then it dawned on me that I’m also interested in the power structures within music and knowledge. There’s an idea that you’re not qualified to have an expression unless you are trained to play a certain instrument. A lot of music refers heavily to its own history. For example, take John Coltrane – it’s free improv, but people say, “It’s easier to go into these pieces if you go into these previous pieces”, or “It’s easier to go into Karlheinz Stockhausen if you listen to some Schoenberg.” So there’s this power structure of knowledge, you know? You have to have this key to unlock that music.

So I had this utopian idea of creating music that is free of these references – a kid could listen to this music and the same way as a music professor, or a plumber…you just put on the ears that you would use to listen to birds in the forest. You listen to the sound as a nature-given sound rather than a cultural sound. I know that, of course, that’s a utopian idea, but it’s a thought that concerns me a lot.

hihat3

MUSIC FOR 10 HI-HATS

The idea of being qualified is also very present from the side of the composer. In an old interview, I saw David Grubbs talking about the fact that a musician gains the right to do something formless – for example, pushing an amplifier down the stairs – by working up their credentials as a genuine musician beforehand. It grants legitimacy to the act. 

Yeah – I know the sentence: “You have to know all the tradition and history before you come up with something new”. There’s this empiric problem in this – in one thousand years from now, you’ll have to learn a further one thousand years of music tradition in order to do something new. It’s a paradox. Perhaps when you’re 80, you’ll have finally learned enough to do it. I think you should be free to choose your own tradition. I write this music simply because I think it’s really nice and really beautiful – this conceptual stuff we’re talking about now is just a product of that.

So how do you score these pieces? Traditional music notation is very much connected to this idea of being qualified to create music. You have to learn to read and write notation in order to access it.

They have been noted in different ways. With each piece, I’ve tried to acquire the instrument for which I’m writing. Originally I’m an educated saxophonist, so I have a knowledge about how a saxophone works and how a clarinet works. I also played the recorder when I was small, but I tried to take up the instruments and play them, and see what the instrument is capable of – almost in a childish way. When my kids play around with an instrument they become fascinated with this magical thing, which becomes forgotten when you really learn how to play it.

Some of the pieces have been notated using traditional scoring. For instance, the recorder piece is performed by classical recorder players. In that score I’m really thorough in notating. The fingering is all wrong, so in that way it’s really complex. Music For 9 Pianos is notated as a picture of the keys, and then I use a transparent marker to note which keys to press down – so that could be played by anybody, even without any experience of how a piano actually works. The hi-hat piece is actually written as a narrative: you start with a closed hi-hat for two minutes, and then open it 5mm for one minute, then open it 8mm. The triangle, shaker and piano pieces could be performed by anybody, but for the other pieces you should be able to read a little bit of music.

Do you have a sense of the final result when you’re writing these pieces? Is there a means by which you trial the effects of multiplying these instruments before you gather up the musicians to rehearse and record?

It’s old fashioned, but I work with GarageBand. I sit with my clarinet using the wrong fingering and record one layer, then I find another fingering and record another…my goal is always this sonic transformation that takes place. I don’t record all the layers, but I get a notion of how it would be in the studio. Also – when there’s 18 clarinets, there are suddenly a lot of logistics. I cannot offer the musicians any salary for the recordings. Perhaps they will get paid during a concert. But when I ask people to participate, they agree because they find it exciting to play along with 17 other clarinets. They will probably never do that again. But it’s also important for me to say, “Okay – I’ve asked you for this for free, so I know I can’t expect us to rehearse this forever.” We meet in the studio, rehearse and record very quickly. That’s the pragmatic frame surrounding the pieces. Within these frames they should be able come to life, and they should not be difficult to play.

What’s it like hearing these pieces performed by real musicians for the first time? 

That’s where the climax is for me. I hear this music, and I can feel all of these interferences and differential tones that evolve and destruct…this micro-cosmos of sound that is pounding at my tympanic membrane. For me, it’s this bodily experience of sound. It’s so beautiful. I’m cleansed by this sound. These recording sessions are magnificent, and socially they’re really fun – the musicians are really happy, and they’re often talking to eachother saying, “ah – I haven’t seen you for five years!”, because they all play the same instrument.

They like it because the rehearsal time is so sparse, the material is fresh and there’s a focus. Previous projects have sometimes been stressful, and there’s been a pressure to make it work. It’s been so easy with SOUND X SOUND and all of the takes have been so good. Standing in the studio and having 18 clarinets playing in front of me in this semi-circle…I feel this sound frying my brain. That has been the peak for me.

So how long did the whole rehearsal and recording process take for, say, the piece for recorders?

It took one day. Because it was the first one, we actually had a separate rehearsal for that piece. That was the only exception. But the other pieces have only taken place in the studio: one day for rehearsal and recording.

solo-piece-2

MUSIC FOR 30 CHROMATIC TUNERS

It must be such a rush.

It really is. There’s also the strange ensemble size; it’s probably only a once in a lifetime that these musicians will be in the studio with so many other musicians playing the same instruments. I feel that it’s pretty amazing for them to be a part of. I’m also interested in the tradition of how ensemble sizes can dictate the kind of music that is written. For example, in classical music you have a lot of string quartets and that’s a really beautiful ensemble size. There’s a lot of new music being written for the string quartet and the symphonic orchestra because they’re institutions. But when they dictate the type of music that is written, then you have to discard a lot of other ensemble formats and sizes. In the future, perhaps this is what the standard ensemble could look like: the 10-hi-hat ensemble. We also have to not be blinded by these institutions that dictate what kind of music can be written.

The ensemble size also often dictates the scale of the music itself. What I love about your SOUND X SOUND pieces is how abandon the traditional idea of musical scale – once you get beyond about 8 recorders, it’s very difficult to tell how many people are involved in playing this music. It’s nice to see you disarming this transparency of scale that so often rules over ensemble music.

Yes, it becomes blurry. “How many musicians am I listening to?”. It’s just this cluster of sound. That’s totally my experience of it too.

So you’ve got four more SOUND X SOUND pieces coming out in November?

Yeah, that’s going to be the end of the series. I’m releasing the last four at the same time: clarinets, hi-hats, triangles and shakers.

Three of those are percussively themed, I see.

For the shaker piece, I was very interested in whether I could develop a feeling of white noise. You would never normally listen to a piece just for shakers. As for the triangles – they say that it’s an instrument with no tonal root, but I don’t know if I agree with that. When I layered the triangles, suddenly this overtone appeared above them; this layer above what was actually played. And the hi-hats…it’s such a magnificent instrument. When you really listen close to the hi-hat, it becomes apparent that there’s this really deep bass frequency sound, which you don’t relate to a hi-hat at all. You can generate this space between the cymbals which is changing all the time. I fell in love with it.

I’m surprise you’re bringing this series to a close – you still seem very enthused by the whole concept. 

Who knows – I might make another five years from now. I’m very occupied with the creative paradox. I was very skilful as a saxophone player in a certain language and mastered my instrument, but I was also a slave to myself, and my knowledge and my own habits. I have to go away from the SOUND X SOUND concept for a little while in order to look at my own practice from a critical perspective – perhaps I’ve already developed some habits I can dismantle again. I need to back off and look at it, and then I think I’ll come back again.

I already have some ideas about circular pieces actually. At Iceland’s Dark Music Days festival [MYRKIR MÚSÍKDAGAR] in January, I’m performing this piece for 70 triangles, which will be placed in a huge circle with the audience in the middle. The idea of surrounding the audience with sound…that’s something I really like. I could see some of my SOUND X SOUND works morphing into this somehow.

MUSIC FOR 16 TRIANGLES

MUSIC FOR 16 TRIANGLES

I understand that you’ve got a couple of other shows over the next month, including the finale of SOUND X SOUND at Copenhagen Jazzhouse on November 11th. What else is coming up?

Well I’ve made this festival called Curatorium.

I was going to ask you about that.

I’m very interested in the narrative perspectives of art. We could claim that we create a reality through the means of language, and if we were to take that to the uttermost extreme…that’s making stories about a piece of art, where the story becomes that art it refers back to, but the physical notion of the artwork is dissolved. The only thing that’s left is the narrative about it.

You could say that we live in narrative times; perhaps it’s always been true, but it’s even more so now. Of course, the digital world is different narratives, and we know that they’re only narratives but they still intertwine with this physical reality. While visiting a museum in Aarhus here in Denmark, I went into this room called The Curator’s Room. It was this room where the chief curator had changed some pieces from the collection, and placed them in a new way in relation to eachother. This room was to be experienced as a new artwork – this meta-work. This curator had not created these pieces; they were only placed in a new narrative.

We can see the same tendencies in music festivals, where curators take different acts and put them together, creating this meta-artwork called the programme. You often see these really sweet programmes full of killer names, and the story is so aesthetic; it’s only really good taste and stuff like that. I’m really not interested in the acts as such.

So I wanted to investigative this “movement”, in terms of how we perceive and talk about art, through this festival called Curatorium. I realised that there’s a nice upside to this, because if we were to say that the piece of work as a physical notion is dissolved and that only the narrative is left, then everybody is free to create the narrative. If I were to say to you, “I would like you to write a string quartet”, you might reply, “I don’t know how to notate”. But you can imagine something. “The first thing I hear is a high tone from the violins…”. Everyone can create something. I’m interested in this narrative as a tool for composing and for dismantling power structures.

It also allows the listener to participate in the creation of the work through imagination and anticipation, too.

Exactly. For a composer like Iannis Xenakis, the ontology of music ended with the score – he was not interested in how it was perceived by the audience. By making this imagined music – or as I call it, music for the inner ear – then the piece emerges through the meaning to the listener. As you say, that makes everybody co-creators in the music.

Niels Lyhne Løkkegaard’s website – www.nielsloekkegaard.dk
Videos from the SOUND X SOUND series – youtube.com/user/nielslokkegaard